Living (Zhit): Film Review

Tales of death in life grounded in local detail for likely festival-pleaser

Vasily Sigarev's sophomore feature is in the Russian tradition of high seriousness, its theme the presence of death in life.

WIESBADEN - Three years ago, Vasily Sigarev's debut feature Volchok (Wolfy) won a clutch of festival awards. His follow-up Zhit (Living), which has won the best film and international critics awards at Wiesbaden's goEast festival of central and eastern European films, confirms his emergence as a talent to be reckoned with. Living is in the Russian tradition of high seriousness, its theme the presence of death in life, no less.

Known internationally as a playwright (an early work was produced at London's Royal Court theatre), Sigarev based Wolfy on one of his stage plays. With Living, he starts from cinematic scratch, weaving three stories together, none of them connected though the characters share the same wintry space (a small town in the director's home province of Yekaterinburg, in the Urals).

A man cycles out to a river bank and vanishes, presumed drowned. Artyom (Alexei Filimonov), his young son, longs to see him again. Two young people, post-punk, Grishka (Yana Stoyanova) in white-dyed dreadlocks, Anton (Konstantin Gatsalov) something of a prankster, decide to get married, but after the wedding Anton is savagely beaten up and dies. Galya (Olga Lapshina), a middle-aged woman, is separated from her two daughters who are killed in a road accident as they are being returned to her.

For a film called Living, there's an awful lot of dying going on. Or is there? After the initial devastation, after her railing at the priest who married them - "What's the point of love if we're all going to die anyway?" - the grieving Grishka finds Anton returning to her. At the burial of her daughters, Galya is convinced they are still breathing and returns to the cemetery at night to dig them up. Soon they are supping together around the kitchen table. And by the end of the film, sure enough, Artyom's father is sitting on the landing, waiting for his son to join him.

There are moments when Sigarev appears to be flirting with the supernatural visitation genre, but it's clear finally that what interests him is the power of the bereaved to conjure up, at least in their minds, images of the dear departed. The death of those we hold closest is perhaps the greatest trial that we have to bear in life, and what these characters have in common is their struggle to come to terms with their loss.

The film isn't really saying anything new about how we deal with death and audiences may quibble with (or alternatively be impressed by) the overlay of metaphysical brooding, but Sigarev keeps his stories grounded in the realities of provincial life, maintaining our interest until providing catharsis - after a fashion - for his characters.

The harshness of life in today's Russia is presented in the usual bleak terms, though less oppressively than usual, and Sigarev is well served by Alisher Khalidkhodaev's cinematography and an excellent cast. 

 

Production company: Koktebel Film Company, Russia
Director: Vasily Sigarev
Writer: Vasily Sigarev
Cast: Yana Troyanova, Olga Lapshina, Alexei Filimonov, Yevgeny Sity, Anna Ykolova
Photography: Alisher Khalidkhodaev
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Alexander Kushaev
Editor: Dasha Danilova
Music: Pavel Dodonov
Foreign sales: Koktebel Film Company
Running time: 119 minutes 

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